Stand-Up Comedy, Rape Jokes, and the Word “Faggot”

The New York Times quotes Sarah Silverman:

“I need more rape jokes,” she shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so “edgy” after all. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.”

I thought this debate about rape jokes, between standup comedian Jim Norton and feminist Lindy West (who I think is an aspiring stand-up as well?) was one of the best TV debates I’ve ever seen. I wish they had more time and had gotten into more arguments, but I liked that both debaters were respectful and funny.

Of course, since the debate was broadcast on FX, Lindy West has gotten tons of woman-hating and fat-hating comments from male comedy fans. Lovely. (Norton, who Lindy described as “thoughtful and fair,” publicly objected to how fans are treating Lindy.)1

Oddly enough, Jim Norton has a bit part in “one of the most extraordinary discussions of gay male sexuality and the use of the word “faggot” ever seen on television,” from the TV show Louie, in which Louie asks Rick (played by stand-up comic Rick Crom, who is gay) if it bothers Rick that Louie uses the word “faggot” in his stand-up act. (Go ahead and watch it, but be warned: the dialog features misogyny, obscenity and homophobia by the bagfull). The discussion in the show, I have read, was written by Louie CK based on a real-life discussion he had with Rick Crom, which convinced him to stop using the word “Faggot” on stage.

Rick in the Louie scene and Lindy West in the debate make very similar arguments: Go ahead and make those jokes if you like, but think about what they are received by the survivors of rape and homophobia in your audience.

I’m less concerned by jokes told by standup comedians, than by the jokes told in more everyday circumstances, around the proverbial water cooler2, in social media, and on TV. I see three reasons to be concerned:

1) As Lindy says, those jokes can help normalize attitudes in our culture that make rape more likely to occur more often.
2) Also as Lindy says, the jokes could be very painful for rape victims to hear.
3) Some of the people hearing rape jokes are themselves rapists:

If one in twenty guys is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, really cool guy, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, or elsewhere, you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can’t tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It’s not like they announce themselves.

But, here’s the thing. It’s very likely that in some of these interactions with these guys, at some point or another someone told a rape joke. You, decent guy that you are, understood that they didn’t mean it, and it was just a joke. And so you laughed.

And, decent guy who would never condone rape, who would step in and stop rape if he saw it, who understands that rape is awful and wrong and bad, when you laughed?

That rapist who was in the group with you, that rapist thought that you were on his side. That rapist knew that you were a rapist like him. And he felt validated, and he felt he was among his comrades.

* * *

The term “rape jokes” is too broad (Lindy touches on this in the debate). Which jokes, specifically? And who do they target, the rapist or the rape victim?

More reading:

Lindy West: How to Make a Rape Joke

Let’s Talk About Lindy West, Jokes and Rape – ABC News

15 Rape Jokes That Work | Kate Harding

The Soapbox: What Do Rape Jokes Make Rapists Think?

“… until recently I realized that I was more ashamed of my being a rape victim than I was of myself when I laughed at rape jokes.”

Sady Doyle’s Exchange With Comedian Sam Morrill

Debating Rape Jokes | Alas, a Blog

  1. I also found it interesting, hearing that clip, how much the interviewer is too stupid and stuck on his easy stereotypes to even understand what argument Lindy is making, so much so that Norton seems frustrated by the host’s bad faith arguments, even though Norton is ideologically aligned with the host. []
  2. We have a water cooler in my office, and we actually do sometimes stand around it and chat, and I always feel iconic. []
This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Homophobic zaniness/more LGBTQ issues, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer issues, Popular (and unpopular) culture, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

7 Responses to Stand-Up Comedy, Rape Jokes, and the Word “Faggot”

  1. 1
    Doug S. says:

    There’s probably no point in linking to George Carlin’s famous routine on the subject, is there?

  2. 2
    Jessica says:

    The video ended really weirdly. Norton said “I think the way this should end is me and Lindy should make out.” She did not look interested or amused. Did he think that line was funny, ironic-funny, or what?

  3. 3
    Eva says:


    I was wondering about that make-out joke myself. I think W. Kamau Bell tried to highlight the weirdness of the joke, given the discussion, by offering to make out with Norton himself – his mouth wide open for a big kiss – but Norton wasn’t interested. Gee, I wonder why not? I have mixed feelings about combating a misogynist joke with a homophobic joke, though, but in the moment it seemed to work.

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  5. 4
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    More generally, is Norton actually trying to argue that there’s no such thing as malicious humor?

  6. 5
    Hugh says:

    Why are the jokes made by standups less of an issue?

  7. 6
    Grace Annam says:

    Yeah, the joke about making out, at the end, fell flat, and plainly West was made uncomfortable by it … and in digesting that, it seems to me to beautifully illustrate the point West was making, especially toward the end. Why is it okay for Norton to stand in his comfort zone and make jokes about West’s (and other people’s) discomfort zone? Because that’s exactly what a “make-out” joke does; that joke codes VERY DIFFERENTLY for women than it does for men, because men don’t have the same daily, routine experience of unwanted sexual advance that women do.

    Norton idolizes Joan Rivers for “brutal” comedy on the topic of 9/11, but that’s a shared discomfort zone; Rivers lived through that with the rest of us, and certainly had friends and/or family in NYC at the time. Rivers lived through the 80’s in a way which younger people simply did not, and probably lost friends and certainly acquaintances and colleagues to HIV.

    Rape is not like that. Though men sometimes do get raped, they do not typically have to fear it in the same way that women typically do, and they DON’T typically fear it in the same way women typically do. The contrast between Norton’s and West’s references to rape are very telling: West talks about “trauma”, and Norton talks about how rape is “offensive” and “awful”. Norton thinks he gets it, but he plainly doesn’t.

    Also, “Comic speech has never contributed to violence…” Just, wuh? Has he never seen anything thrown at someone trying to be funny? Even if he means that comic speech has never contributed to violence against a third party, he’s wrong. Even if we can find no instances where comic speech led directly, as a next action, to a grab or a punch or a slap, certainly comic speech can and does enable people to trivialize and mock the victims, which helps develop and maintain a shared social understanding that what happens to the victims won’t be treated seriously.

    Comic speech which trivializes victim trauma is comic speech which signals to abusers that it’s safe to traumatize.

    As for the all-or-nothing argument, please. The right to comic speech is basically the right to free speech, and as highly as we regard free speech, we put all kinds of limits on it. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You can’t say that someone has committed a crime when in fact they haven’t. You can be successfully sued civilly for defaming someone’s character. And long before we sue civilly or charge criminally, we feel free to socially censure, even by talking to advertisers. Comic speech shouldn’t be any more protected. All rights have limits and exceptions.